Artichoke soup on Park Avenue.
The president came to Rochester, but not really.
In the fading afterglow of last week’s surprise visit to the city of Rochester by Barack Obama, a nagging question asserts itself: How tone deaf are these people?
Not that there was anything wrong with the visit, it’s just that so much that could have been right about it ended up a missed opportunity.
While rolling along on Ground Force One between Buffalo and Syracuse, the president made an unannounced stop in Rochester. His bus exited the Thruway at Leroy, continued on to Rochester on Interstate 490, got off at Culver Road and turned left on Park Avenue.
For the two hours previous, as word leaked that the president was coming, speculation was rife about where he would go and what he would do.
I posted myself on West Main Street, next to Nick Tahou’s, the home of Rochester’s signature meal – the Garbage Plate. West Main is also close to Susan B. Anthony’s home and is the prime thoroughfare into Rochester’s southwest neighborhoods, where a large percentage of the city’s African-Americans live.
I wasn’t the only one who thought this was an area the president would either stop in or drive through. Eventually, crews from the newspaper and all the television stations in town gathered outside Nick’s, as did a crowd of people from the neighborhood.
But shortly before his arrival, many of us got texts that he was headed to Park Avenue. On route, the president’s big bus passed near Nick Tahou’s, on the elevated freeway.
People from the neighborhood who had gathered were thrilled to have caught a glimpse of the president’s vehicle.
Before long, the bus was parked in the middle of the narrow, tree-lined delight that is Park Avenue. The president went into a lovely family-run restaurant and had the signature artichoke soup.
Artichoke soup on Park Avenue.
What a man of the people.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for the restaurant, and I’m sure the president had a great experience.
But anybody who thinks Rochester is artichoke soup on Park Avenue has his head in the clouds.
Park Avenue is a generally upper income area of reasonably young people who consider themselves somewhere between eclectic and Bohemian. It is the cool neighborhood.
Thus the artichoke soup.
Again, it’s a wonderful neighborhood and a great street.
But it was a missed opportunity.
It seems like some functionary on a political staff in town got to make a suggestion and came up with a place familiar to his culture and class. No doubt, this is a great place for certain types of people. But it turns out that those types of people are not broadly representative of Rochester.
The city is plurality black, and the lion’s share of those black people live in very modest financial circumstances. Whites are the second largest group, and also typically of limited means. Add in the Hispanics and their average income and you don’t end up with very many people who are having artichoke soup at lunch meetings at sidewalk cafes on Park Avenue.
Put another way, when America’s first black president came to Rochester, he had a distinctly white experience.
While broad stretches of the city where the passing of his bus would have made lifelong memories were completely neglected.
Instead of the vogue neighborhood, maybe the president could have visited the real neighborhoods. Even if he didn’t stop, the mere sight of his motorcade rolling down streets in the ‘hood could have given folks the thrill of a lifetime.
Instead of a quick loop through Park Avenue, maybe the president could have come in on Chile Avenue to Bulls Head and then zigzagged down Genesee and up Jefferson. Maybe instead of artichoke soup at Park Avenue, he could have had rice and beans at El Latino, a Garbage Plate at Nick Tahou’s, or fried haddock at Jack’s Fish Market at Joseph and Avenue D.
Ideally, he could have done it all – stopped for his Park Avenue lunch, but still had an extra half an hour or so to simply drive through some neighborhoods where he would be a hero and an inspiration.
Again, what the president did do was good.
But it could have been better.
Because he really didn’t visit Rochester. Not the Rochester that voted for him. Not the Rochester that loves him.
Not the Rochester that looks like him.
He didn’t wave to any children on Thurston Road or Clinton Avenue. He didn’t buy boiled peanuts from the guy at Clinton and Avenue D. He didn’t stop at a city playground and throw the football or shoot some baskets with the kids.
He didn't visit Susan B. Anthony or Frederick Douglass.
He had the chance to inspire, honor and motivate the folks who live in the troubled neighborhoods that predominate in this city.
But he opted for artichoke soup instead.